Elemental attribution in tarot

A bunch of tarot systems exist, and they don’t always agree with one-another. Conflicting systems of interpretation can be incredibly confusing to beginners and experienced readers alike – but I think this problem really strikes at something important with all systems of divination: you need to be able to reject things that don’t make sense. 

Use the things that work. If something isn’t working, research it to see if you’re missing something. If nothing you read makes it work, or even makes sense, toss it. Not everyone finds the same things useful, so you need to be prepared to step out of the crowd and work in your own way.

Which brings us to the title of the article: The suits of the tarot have elemental attributions, but they’re not the same in all systems of tarot. Some have swords as fire, some as air. Some have wands as fire, or air. Usually coins are earth, and cups are water. Many people have trouble getting their heads around why this attribution or that attribution was placed where it was, or find themselves disagreeing with the whole concept. If you think about it, all four suits can be assigned to all four classical elements, depending on how you want to interpret them.

Swords are in the earth element because they’re made from ores dug from the ground. They’re fire element because they’re forged in fire. They’re water because they’re quenched1 in the forging process. They’re air because they cut2.

Staves (or wands, batons, etc.) are in earth because they grow from the earth. They’re fire because they burn. They’re water because they need water to grow. They’re air because they need sunlight, and die in dark, enclosed places. Also, if you fasten a point to one end, a staff becomes a javelin. Those are thrown through the air.

Cups (or chalices, vessles, etc.) are earth because they’re made from earthy things – clay, metal, glass, wood – these all come from the earth. Even plastic comes from the earth, though it’s processed heavily. They’re fire because you can use a large cup to control a fire – fire pits, grates, barbecues – also, you need fire to make metal, glass and clay cups, and you can burn a wooden cup. They’re water because they can hold water. And they’re air because they can hold air. A diving bell is a large up-side-down cup. You can float empty cups in water. Boats are basically cups that hold air so they don’t sink.

Coins (or pentacles, discs, etc.), like swords, are made of metal, which comes from the earth. They’re fire because they’re forged in fire. They’re water because they’re quenched in liquid. They’re air because a coin can represent a coin-toss, and money is a concept (using the attribution of air to thought) that only works because we all agree (or were coerced to agree) that it works3.

The elements attributed to each suit bring their own baggage – water is supposed to be an emotional element, while earth is supposed to be stable and nurturing. Some people find these elemental attributions helpful, and if you’re one of those people, by all means, keep at it. Do what works for you. I don’t want to stop you doing what works for you. It just doesn’t work for me.

I find the elemental attributions frustrating, because each suit contains cards that don’t match the suit’s element perfectly. For example, the 10 of cups – that’s generally about family and matrimony – it’s watery because there are emotions like love and happiness, but it’s quite earthy because a marriage is ideally stable, and a family is ideally nurturing. I could go through every single card and explain where the attributions of the elements and the standardised meanings don’t work out perfectly, but you get the point.

You may be thinking, ‘but wait, water can be nurturing and stable! The ocean is full of life, and humans need water to live! Lakes and ponds are quite still, so they’re very stable! I don’t agree that earth is exclusively nurturing and stable.’ And, y’know what? You’d be right. The association of elements with their attributions is strange. All four elements can be stable, all four can be nurturing, all four can represent emotions, all four can represent modes of thinking. So why do tarot traditions place calculation and thought in the domain of air, and passion and energy in fire? Why is healing in water? Why are earth and water feminine, and fire and air masculine? Have none of the people who say earth is stable been in an earthquake or landslide? Have they never heard of fire being used in healing, to do things like sterilise medical equipment, or cauterise wounds?

Most of this elemental baggage stuff comes from old scholars and philosophers who were speculating on the way the world might work. Old alchemical texts, writings by ancient Greeks like Plato and Aristotle, commentaries made by the monks that were tasked with making copies of these works, that sort of thing. This stuff was absorbed into traditions of occult symbolism, and now we see it applied to tarot – but it’s not perfect. Tarot wasn’t built with these symbols in mind from the start. Tarot’s history as a fortune-telling tool is murky, so we can’t know for sure how the first occult decks were created, but we do know that tarot was a card game first, and the suits we see today were created prior to tarot’s deep dive into occult symbolism. The people making tarot as a card game back in the early 1400’s were unlikely to have been thinking about the classical elements that might be represented by the suits, or their occult meanings. They were far more likely to be thinking, ‘the church frowns on card games, so how can we make this card game church-friendly? Let’s jam some pictures of Adam and Eve, and some angels, and judgement day in there. That’ll totally work. They wouldn’t ban the Bible! Would they?’

There has been some speculation that the suits of card games that preceded tarot (and that tarot inherited) were intended to represent different types of people within society at the time – swords for the military, cups for the clergy, staves for farmers and craftsmen, and coins for merchants or nobility. This sounds more reasonable to me than the elemental attributions, but ‘sounds reasonable’ isn’t the same as historical fact. Historical records show a long and involved evolution of suits that could potentially support the idea of the suits representing classes, but it doesn’t necessarily do that. There could be other reasons for the suits being the way they are, and certainly there are alternative suits that can be found in different regions of the world, where card games evolved a little differently.

I’m all for adding to and improving systems like tarot – tarot isn’t perfect. But, the elemental attributions are an innovation that doesn’t work for me in most situations. I feel they’re either restrictive and incomplete if adhered to using only their strictly classical attributions, or too similar to one-another to add any value to a reading if you’re letting yourself use whatever elemental attributes you feel work at the time – what’s the point in having four different symbols that mean essentially the same thing?

Of course – there are exceptions. There are modern tarot decks that place greater emphasis on the elemental attributions, define exactly what the elements mean for the deck, and reshape the meanings of the cards to fit the attributions better. The Wildwood tarot is one such deck, and when reading that deck in particular, the elemental attributions feel like they fit.

In the end, the decision to use or discard this extra layer of symbolism is entirely up to you, the reader.

May the cards fall in your favour,

  1. Not always in water though – depends on the process. Some use oil, or snow, or some other thing.
  2. This is a head-scratcher for a lot of people. To grossly oversimplify it (I don’t really want to write a whole book on just the classical elements), the classical element of air is associated with separation of things: if you have two distinct objects, say two pages from a book, they’re separated from merging into one another by something. That’s ‘air’.
  3. Money wasn’t always just a concept, but because there’s no gold standard anymore, we’re kind of in a weird place where money only has value because governments use money to do things like employ people and collect taxes, and they have the power to put you in prison if you don’t do what they want. Businesses could try to create their own means of paying employees in goods or other things, but the governments of the world usually have laws preventing that.

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